[Ppnews] Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: 30 years in U.S. prisons

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Apr 11 18:08:43 EDT 2010

(presented at the Union Theological Seminary on 4/7)

Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: 30 years in U.S. prisons

by Jan Susler

presented at the Union Theological Seminary on April 7, 2010

In the past month, activists in Puerto Rico, New 
York and Chicago participated in art 
installations, voluntarily locking themselves 
into store-fronts converted into jail cells, each 
person spending a long and lonely 24 hour shift, 
symbolically deprived of their liberty, privacy, 
society, movement, and sensory stimulation.

Why on earth would dozens of people voluntarily 
submit themselves to such symbolic privations? To 
reflect on an historic moment: the 30th 
anniversary of the arrest of 11 Puerto Rican men 
and women who would be accused and convicted of 
seditious conspiracy, and sentenced to serve the 
equivalent of life in U.S. prisons. And to call 
attention to the fact that one of them---Carlos 
Alberto Torres---has been in prison for 30 years, 
another---Oscar Lopez Rivera---, for 29 years; 
and another---Avelino Gonzalez Claudio---, for 2. 
Of the 2,000 some Puerto Rican political 
prisoners since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, 
Carlos Alberto is the longest held.

What could motivate a Carlos Alberto, an Oscar, 
or an Avelino, to risk not symbolic, but real, 
concrete, privations? What is it about the 
situation of the Puerto Rican nation that could 
lead to people being accused of conspiracies 
related to winning independence, including 
seditious conspiracy--- conspiring to use force 
against the “lawful” authority of the U.S. over Puerto Rico?

You may know that in 1898, the U.S. invaded and 
militarily occupied Puerto Rico
 an occupation 
which, over the years, has changed and morphed in 
some of its details, but which has essentially 
continued unabated to this day; an occupation 
which led the George W. Bush (hijo)’s 
Presidential Task Force on Puerto Rico to state 
that Puerto Rico is a mere possession of the 
United States, which the U.S. could give away to 
another country, if it so desired.

It is more than a little ironic that the U.S. 
would possess Puerto Rico as a colony, given that 
the U.S. was born of a colonial struggle--- an 
armed, sometimes clandestine, struggle against British control.

Nevertheless, the U.S. expanded its colonial 
empire to include Puerto Rico, controlling its 
borders and its economy; imposing unwanted U.S. 
citizenship and consequent eligibility for 
inscription into the U.S. military; attempting to 
destroy Puerto Rico’s language, rich culture and 
heritage. The Puerto Rican people resisted U.S. 
control, just as they had Spanish control, 
risking prison and even death to seek to control their own destiny.

Colonized peoples of other empires, particularly 
in Africa, also resisted colonial control, 
similarly risking prison and death. In the 1950’s 
and 60’s, some fought in their own national 
territory; others, like the Algerians, took their 
struggle to the metropolis. This wave of 
anti-colonial struggle led to the formation of a 
body of international law, which recognized 
colonialism as a crime against humanity, and 
which also recognized the right of a people to 
fight to end that crime, and in the process to 
use any means at their disposal, including armed struggle.

Once the United Nations was formed, in its 
efforts to end colonialism throughout the world, 
it created a list of non-self governing 
territories to monitor. Puerto Rico appeared on 
this list as a non-self-governing territory of 
the U.S. The U.S., having proclaimed itself as 
the democratic bastion of the world, was not 
happy about being on this list
 and so to get off 
the list, in 1952 created the fiction of the Free 
Associated State, or Commonwealth, and lied to 
the world, claiming that Puerto Rico was 
self-governing­ a lie the Bush Presidential Task Force would later admit.

The Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, having 
organized since the 1930’s, could not abide this 
lie or the U.S. conduct leading up to it. Not 
only did the Party organize armed uprisings and 
attacks in Puerto Rico, as a result of which the 
Party’s members were rounded up and imprisoned, 
and its leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, tortured.

The Party also took its struggle to the source of 
colonial power
 Washington, D.C., where in 1950, 
its members attacked the temporary residence of 
the U.S. president and in 1954, opened fire in 
U.S. Congress. Griselio Torresola was killed; 
Oscar Collazo given the death penalty; and others 
were sentenced to decades in U.S. prisons: Lolita 
Lebrón, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores, and Rafael Cancel Miranda.

And what does all this have to do with Carlos 
Alberto Torres and Oscar López Rivera and 29 and 
30 years of imprisonment? Carlos and Oscar’s 
families were part of the great forced Puerto 
Rican migration of 1950’s
 they grew up in 
Chicago’s barrio, where the Puerto Rican 
community was subject to slum housing, 
insensitive schools, and brutal and racist 
police. As Carlos Alberto and Oscar, along with 
many other young women and men, organized to 
improve the lot of the community, they began to 
understand that the Puerto Rican people needed to 
control its own destiny. They learned Puerto 
Rican history---even though their teachers told 
them Puerto Rico had no history. They learned 
about the long and proud history of the 
resistance of the Puerto Rican people to Spanish 
and then U.S. control. They learned about the 
Nationalist political prisoners, and participated 
in the Committee to Free the Five
 a campaign 
which resulted in President Carter commuting 
their sentences in 1979 after 25 and 29 long years in U.S. prisons.

Carlos Alberto and Oscar understood who they were 
as a people; they deeply loved their people and 
profoundly grasped the wrongness of the colonial 
domination of their nation. Like others 
organizing contemporaneously in Puerto Rico, they 
were inspired by their foremothers and fathers, 
as well as other peoples thirsty for 
self-determination, and out of love for their 
people, dedicated their lives to righting that 
wrong, organizing in clandestine fashion to bring 
attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. 
They knew the cost could be great
 and indeed it turned out to be.

In 1976, Carlos Alberto and Oscar, along with two 
companeras, went underground. Carlos Alberto and 
10 others were arrested in 1980; Oscar in 1981; 
as well as others in 1983; they were accused of 
belonging to the FALN, Armed Forces for National 
Liberation. They invoked international law, 
articulating that colonialism is a crime against 
humanity; that anti-colonial combatants may use 
any means at their disposal, including armed 
struggle, to end that crime; and that the courts 
of the colonizing country may not criminalize 
captured anti-colonial combatants, but must turn 
them over to an impartial international tribunal 
to have their status adjudged. The U.S. did not 
heed international law, and proceeded to try them 
and send them to prison for sentences ranging 
from 35 to life
 this, after the judge stated his 
regrets that there was no federal death penalty 
at the time, for that was the sentence he wanted to give them.

Time does not allow a complete catalog the myriad 
of human rights violations they experienced in 
U.S. prisons
 the years of torture, withholding 
medical attention, lockdowns, harassment, false 
accusations of violations of prison rules and 
criminal laws. But we must take time today to 
consider what 30 years of prison means: Carlos 
Alberto’s father, Reverend Jose Torres (el Viejo) 
retired from his position as pastor of the United 
Church of Christ church and later succumbed to 
prostate cancer. Carlos was not permitted to go 
to his father’s deathbed or to the funeral. 
Oscar’s parents passed away. His mother, Mita, 
suffered from Alzheimer’s, and had difficulty 
understanding why she was unable to hug her son, 
as their visits were through thick plexiglass. 
Oscar was also not permitted to attend her 
funeral. Both Carlos Alberto and Oscar are now 
 they have known their grandchildren 
only in prison visiting rooms, where guards hover 
closely and limit their physical contact.

In the early 1990’s, people in Puerto Rico and 
the U.S., who had worked to defend their human 
rights since the moment of their arrest, joined 
to form a campaign for the release of the Puerto 
Rican political prisoners. By the mid 1990’s, the 
campaign had moved beyond the movement for the 
independence of Puerto Rico and expanded to 
include broad sectors of Puerto Rican civil 
 a most unusual phenomenon in Puerto 
Rico, where status preference lines rarely allow 
for such convergence. The churches--- in both the 
U.S. and in Puerto Rico--- were key in this 
effort. The campaign created the understanding 
that the men and women in prison for independence 
were Puerto Ricans who were being punished with 
disproportionately lengthy sentences and cruel 
prison conditions because of who they were, and 
not for what they had done: if they had been 
social prisoners, convicted of crimes not related 
to the independence of Puerto Rico, they would 
never have been given such lengthy sentences, and 
they would have been released after serving far 
less time in prison. And if they had been 
political prisoners in any other country of the 
world--- be it in South Africa, in France, in 
Germany, for example, they would have been 
released after serving less time in prison.

This campaign took on international proportions, 
garnering support from Nobel Peace Prize winners, 
elected officials, church leaders, and 
personalities such as Desmond Tutu, archbishop of 
South Africa. Archbishop Tutu’s support was not 
coincidental, given that the Puerto Rican 
political prisoners were in prison for precisely 
the same reason as Nelson Mandela and other 
anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa: 
clandestine organizing to end illegal domination 
of one people by another. Let us recall the 
worldwide outrage at the 27 years President Mandela was kept in prison.

The vast support for their release led to 
President Clinton’s 1999 commutation of the 
sentences of 11 of Carlos Alberto and Oscar’s 
compatriots, and after 16 and 20 years in prison, 
Elizam Escobar, Edwin Cortes, Dylcia Pagán, 
Ricardo Jiménez, Lucy Rodríguez, Luis Rosa, 
Carmen Valentín, Alicia Rodríguez, Adolfo Matos, 
Alberto Rodríguez, Alejandrina Torres, and later 
Juan Segarra, walked out of the prison doors and 
into the waiting arms of the Puerto Rican people and their supporters.

In the ten years since their release, they have 
received a hero’s welcome and the universal 
respect of the people. They work in education, 
art, construction, business and law; they support 
and care for their families; they are active in 
ongoing struggles affecting the Puerto Rican 
people; and they are a very important part of the 
ongoing campaign for the release of Carlos Alberto, Oscar and Avelino.

Rather astonishingly, Carlos Alberto and Oscar 
have served those ten years behind bars. Yet, 
like their released compatriots, Carlos Alberto, 
Oscar and Avelino are resilient, intelligent, 
caring men, committed to the freedom of their 
people. Their love for their nation has 
maintained them through the darkest moments, kept 
alive their sense of humor, their thirst for 
expression through art, and their people’s 
aspirations, at the same time it has kept at bay 
any sense of bitterness or hate.

Every year, the U.N. Decolonization Committee 
adopts a resolution applying international law to 
the case of Puerto Rico, reaffirming that 
colonialism is a crime against humanity and that 
the right of self-determination applies to the 
Puerto Rican people. And for over a decade, that 
international body has called for the release of 
the Puerto Rican political prisoners, last year 
specifically naming Carlos Alberto and Oscar.

President Obama, like many of his predecessors, 
has stated that the relationship between the U.S. 
and Puerto Rico must be resolved. There is 
legislation pending in U.S. Congress which 
purports to address the issue of status. Any 
resolution of the status, however, must comply 
with international law, and must provide for 
release of the political prisoners.

Oscar is now 67 years old; Carlos Alberto, 57; 
Avelino, 67. If they are made to serve their 
entire prison sentences, Oscar will be 84 years 
old; Carlos Alberto, 71; Avelino, 74. It is up to 
 you, me, your classmates, members of your 
congregation, your families, your neighbors
ensure that doesn’t happen. We can write to the 
U.S. Parole Commission to support Carlos 
Alberto’s bid for parole. We can write to the 
president to ask him to commute their sentences. 
We can join organizations such as the National 
Boricua Human Rights Network, el Comité Pro 
Derechos Humanos, or Prolibertad, and put our 
creative energy to work, with activities like the 
store-front cell installations. We can sponsor 
educational forums like this one, and invite the 
former political prisoners to speak. We can write 
to the prisoners and let them know we support them.

History has taught us that together we are 
enormously powerful­ convincing the empire to 
cede two historic and unprecedented releases of 
Puerto Rican political prisoners, in 1979 and 
1999, not to mention to withdraw the U.S. Navy 
from Vieques. We must organize to exercise our 
collective power once more, and bring Carlos Alberto, Oscar and Avelino home.

And we must work to end U.S. colonial control 
over Puerto Rico
 history has taught us, not just 
over the past 30 years, but over the past 111 
years of U.S. colonialism and the centuries 
before that of Spanish colonialism, like Carlos 
Alberto, Oscar, Avelino, Don Pedro, Lolita, and 
thousands of others, the Puerto Rican people will 
risk real privations and even death to win freedom and self-determination.

Jan Susler
People’s Law Office
1180 N. Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60642
773/235-0070 x 118
jsusler at aol.com

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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